Plan Seeks to Give Congress Hopefuls Vouchers for Ads : Elections: Proposal would also limit campaign spending. Foes say giving candidates tax funds to buy TV time is like ‘food stamps for politicians.’


Candidates for House and Senate seats would receive taxpayer-financed vouchers for reduced-cost television time under a campaign reform proposal that the Clinton Administration plans to announce today.

Administration officials view the vouchers as a key element in a proposal that would, if approved, for the first time set overall limits on the amount that House and Senate candidates can spend to win election. But opponents, particularly Republicans, already have geared up to attack the idea, labeling it “food stamps for politicians.”

White House planners had hoped to release their election reform proposals last month but delayed the move to provide time for additional negotiations on Capitol Hill. The negotiations, which have continued through most of the last week, appear to have led Clinton to back off from some reform proposals--primarily spending limits--that he had advocated during the 1992 presidential campaign. At the same time, however, the discussions may have smoothed the way for action on a bill, particularly in the Senate, where Republican-led filibusters killed several earlier reform attempts.

Reform proposals still face significant opposition in the House, however, where many members, including Democrats, dislike the idea of changing the system under which they were elected.


Thursday, Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), the chief Senate sponsor of campaign reform legislation, said he believes that the bill can be taken up in the Senate the week after next. And, in a move of potentially great significance, five Republican senators sent a letter to Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) outlining the points they would need to see in a bill before supporting it.

Support of the five Republicans--Dave Durenberger of Minnesota, John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, William S. Cohen of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and James M. Jeffords of Vermont--would give the Democrats the 60 votes they need to end a filibuster, assuming that nearly all the 57 Senate Democrats supported the bill.

Asked about the conditions outlined in the letter, a senior White House official said he saw “some problems” but “no definite deal breakers.”

Most important, the five senators indicated that they would, under certain circumstances, accept some public financing of House and Senate campaigns--the key issue that has killed past reform efforts. In their letter, the senators said they would prefer no public financing but indicated that they would accept it if the bill provides a means of paying for the program without increasing the deficit.


The Administration will propose paying for a public financing plan by ending the current tax deduction for corporate lobbying expenses.

Under a Supreme Court ruling in the mid-1970s, the government cannot set mandatory limits on campaign spending. For that reason, reform efforts generally have tried to establish voluntary limits but make them attractive to candidates by providing public funds for those who abide by the caps.

The Administration’s proposal, congressional sources and others familiar with the package said, would set a limit of about $1 million for House races. The limit for Senate races would run from slightly less than $1 million up to roughly $5.5 million, depending on the size of the state.

In return for accepting those limits, House candidates in primaries and general elections could receive up to $200,000 in public funds, partly in cash and partly in the form of vouchers to buy advertising. Senate candidates could receive cash and vouchers covering up to 20% of their spending in primaries and general elections.

The proposed spending ceilings are high enough to accommodate what the average member of the House and Senate spent last year but would have had a noticeable impact on spending in the most expensive races. In 1992, at least three California congressmen, Reps. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) and Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), spent more than $1 million.